An imperfect father, but the only one I had
Only memories of childhood can restore my respect for my father, writes Scott Dunlop.
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A fond memory from childhood: my father, stern, only with a twinkle in his eye that even the daily stress of life could not erase, sitting at the table in his waistcoat, tying his tie and sipping his coffee carefully while reading the paper. Eyebrows arching every now and then as he disagrees with the editorial. A respected man, who chastised us often but only because he wanted the best for us.

Wait.

That’s not my father. That’s Atticus Finch.

My dad’s collar never quite lost the blue of the factory. Even when he worked his way up from humping massive sacks of flour to managing the biggest biscuit factory in the country, his eyes viewed life with optimistic disappointment; what he longed for was always delayed or out of reach.

My father was not a sophisticated lawyer, wrangling with ethical or moral arguments. He’d make sure we “did the right thing”, if only to please my mother.

He was a “you just wait till your father comes home” kind of dad, a threat which rarely materialised into physical discipline. By the time he came home, he was too tired to muster up any rage. He’d sag into a small glass of whisky and puff on endless Rothmans, riffling through a briefcase full of accounts and letters. He’d shake his head now and then, rearing back from some bill too intimidating to reconcile with what must have been a modest salary.

In his youth he’d been physically powerful- an athlete. As a small boy, he’d wrestle me, pick me up and juggle me with ease, but when the days of picking me up were over, he lost the ability to communicate in that physical language. When he did try and converse, it was stilted, almost painfully so. Words collided like shins on coffee tables.

I can’t tell you about how our relationship faltered; the violence of words and disgust spilling over into remoteness. But I can say that his mildness was not the mildness of Atticus Finch, but that of a man defeated.

I imagine him as a young man, gifted in every sport in which he competed, but not prepared to rely on the stipends offered to professional athletes in those days. Taking a job he needed but didn’t enjoy, and playing rugby for a club until he blew out his knees.

Marrying, having children, emigrating a couple of times. Looking for the place where he could anchor that sailing boat he dreamed of.

My most favourite memory of him is watching a rugby match in the snow, him holding my hand in the pocket of his sheepskin coat as he harrumphed at the ref’s decisions before we headed inside the rugby club itself, a dark, smoke-thick room full of ancient wood and old men with their pipes and pints. The smell of cherry tobacco lingered in the air along with the reek of Deep Heat coming from the red-faced players as they emerged from the changing rooms.

Imperfect, but mine. I loved him, then.

Atticus Finch managed to create an impossible victory, even in defeat; he forced people to re-examine their attitudes and acknowledge their flaws. My father’s defeat was at his own hands as he surrendered his will to resist and accepted his flaws.

This is how things should have turned out. He should be cleaning the salt crystals off the sailing boat as he prepares to take her skipping over the waves and out of view. He’d have called her The Rosemary after my mother, and would be laughing at the spray shearing off the surf, a legend among his harbour friends as the man who could wrestle the wind into submission with his bare hands.

That’s who the father of my childhood was. A tough bastard, but a happy one.

Not Atticus Finch, but happier for not taking on the weight of the world.

Disclaimer: The views of columnists published on Parent24 are their own and therefore do not necessarily represent the views of Parent24.

Is the father you remember from your childhood different to the one you know as an adult?

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